Toni Erdmann (2016/17)
Director: Maren Ade
Screenwriter: Maren Ade
Starring: Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek
Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is a multi-lingual character drama with comedic flair that has made so many of the right people laugh that it is officially Europe’s most beloved film having won a host of European Film Awards in late 2016 and having earned Foreign Language attention at the Oscars in 2017. Produced with finance from across Europe and spearheaded by a filmmaker from Germany who shot the picture largely in Romania, this Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller starring drama offers critique on big business exploitation, class division, generational division, the oil industry, the European Union and sexism in the workplace, all the while managing to force a smile through its immaculately placed moments of dark humour and situation comedy that work to truly drive home the wonderfully intricate character study at the heart of this most sensationally odd and fantastic film.
Toni Erdmann may have you laughing and rejoicing in ways you may not have done for a long time and much of this is owed to the premise of the film and the pace at which it is presented. Likeable oddball Winfried (Simonischek) is an instantly grabbing character with an interesting flair for practical jokes, while his daughter Ines (Hüller) is a straight-laced high ranking professional who is growing apart from her father at a rapid rate. Their continuous drifting apart provokes the father into taking a trip to his daughter’s temporary home in Bucharest, Romania in an attempt to reconnect with her in the only way he knows how: making her laugh. It’s a rather simple idea, and one done to death in the UK especially, but the gravitas of each of its actors and the slow pace at which so many of the more spectacular moments of character discovery and situational hilarity occur, make for a film far more touching than can perhaps be explained by such a summary, as by the time each of the more funny or awkward moments occur, there has been a solid foundation laid by the clever and intricate drama that preceded it, making for heightened investment in such moments and a deep and proud belly laugh to go with them.
The narrative of the piece is as involving as any film you’re likely to see this year, yet the whole movie plays as if one long joke complete with a layered and intellectually stimulating punchline that serves both as entertainment and food for thought – it’s a delicate line to walk, but Maren Ade has achieved it with such sublime quality. Her work behind the camera as organiser and artist is artistic without taking away any sense of connection to the characters, and her intellectual sensibility offers each and every major plot point the sort of depth that simply isn’t occurring in much of North America’s comedy/comedrama genres in the contemporary market. It’s as if Ade and her crew made a comedy movie and a dramatic film side-by-side and then sliced them together in the editing booth to create something truly remarkable, only with a much more distinguished and purposeful sensibility than such a scenario would suggest.
One such a result of this merging of drama and comedy is the resultant character development. Both Winfried and Ines are grown from mere caricatures (the clown and the stern faced business woman respectively) to hugely identifiable characters with reasonable wants and needs that just so happen to oppose one another’s despite their attempts to the contrary. The outlandish and the subtle are each present throughout any given exchange and, as such, deep and well rounded people are born through the eye of the camera. In tune with such excellent composition is the way in which the movie earns each of its characters moments, whether they be of the outlandish or deeply profound kind, and how much more feeling and investment comes as a result of this. Ines particularly grows to shine throughout the picture’s series of events, with the movie passing its central role from father to daughter in much the same way people pass responsibility and indeed life from family member to family member, creating a truly remarkable movie unlike many others.
The most questionable aspect of Toni Erdmann comes in the way it handles the character of Winfried, Ines’ father. Depending on your point of view, the way the character forces his involvement in his daughter’s life and seems destined to interfere in her professional career can seem a little off-kilter if not actually quite creepy. Winfried walks on the edge of being unlikable just as his daughter does, only in what some would consider a more dangerous way. More than a creep or even a possessive father however, Winfried should be valued by viewers of the movie to be much more of the spiritual teacher that the traditional cinematic father figure is and his character evidently becomes, because his enlightening of Ines becomes so entrenched with her journey that Winfried’s character is somewhat of a hero in his extravagant yet true-to-life and largely unremarkable way.
It is clear, then, that Toni Erdmann is more of an exploration of characters that happens to include a funny man than any kind of straight comedy as seems to have been the movie’s promotional materials’ portrayal. And, while this stretches the usual dark comedy formula out for a longer run-time, the movie remains entertaining and deeply enriching because every minute means something and nothing feels lost or a stretch to keep up with.
Conclusively, Toni Erdmann is a film of the year with a level of storytelling across all major aspects of the movie that is simply unparalleled. So become invested in Ines’ journey and do your most prideful laugh and wide grin at her every twist and turn as you join this simple human’s excellently conveyed journey in a classic of European cinema that is worth every bit of the hype.